Do I Know You?

17 July 2006

A condition that causes an inability to recognize faces is socially isolating – and surprisingly common.

Cecilia Burman has always had a problem with faces. As a child, she struggled to pick out her own face in school photos, and she is hard-pressed today to describe her mother’s features. Over the years she has offended countless friends, passing them on neighborhood streets or in office hallways like strangers. …

There’s a name for Burman’s condition: prosopagnosia or, more informally, face blindness. The disorder was thought to be exceedingly rare and mainly a result of brain injury. …

Prosopagnosia may be caused by a defect in a single, dominant gene, so that if one parent has it, each child has a 50% chance of inheriting it.

Howard is one of those children. Last year she learned the term prosopagnosia from a news article and thought, I have that. She contacted Dr Bradley Duchaine [UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience]. …

Last April, Duchaine gave Howard, her parents and six of her seven siblings a battery of recognition tests, including one that required identifying celebrity faces. Every member of the Howard family scored below average. “I showed one of them Elvis Presley,” Duchaine says, “and she thought it was Brooke Shields.”

Neuroscientists aren’t sure exactly how the brain perceives faces but know that some ability to do so is present from birth and involves large and broadly distributed parts of the brain –presumably reflecting the importance of face perception to survival. Babies prefer looking at their mother’s visage over a stranger’s and quickly learn to distinguish between male and female faces. Some part of that circuitry seems to be broken in prosopagnosics. Brain scans suggest impairment in the temporal or occipital lobes, both of which are heavily involved in face recognition.…

Sora Song, ‘Time’